Shoddy Shepherds.

“Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness,
    and his upper rooms by injustice,
who makes his neighbor serve him for nothing
    and does not give him his wages,
who says, ‘I will build myself a great house
    with spacious upper rooms,’
who cuts out windows for it,
    paneling it with cedar
    and painting it with vermilion.
Do you think you are a king
    because you compete in cedar?
Did not your father eat and drink
    and do justice and righteousness?
    Then it was well with him.
He judged the cause of the poor and needy;
    then it was well.
Is not this to know me?
    declares the Lord.
But you have eyes and heart
    only for your dishonest gain,
for shedding innocent blood,
    and for practicing oppression and violence.”
Jeremiah 22:13-17 ESV

This particular section of Jeremiah’s message from God continues to focus on the kings of Judah. When Jeremiah had begun his mission as a prophet of God, it had been during the reign of Josiah, who happened to be a good and godly king. The book of 2 Kings tells us: “he did what was right in the eyes of the Lord and walked in all the way of David his father, and he did not turn aside to the right or to the left” (2 Kings 22:2 ESV). It was during his reign that they rediscovered the book of the Law while doing restoration work on the temple. When Josiah heard what the law said, he was convicted about the immoral activity of his people and instituted a series of radical reforms in the land. He ordered the destruction of all the high places where false gods were worshiped. He had the priests purge the temple of God from all the vessels used to worship false gods like Baal and Asherah. Josiah also ordered the rounding up of all the priests who led in the worship of false gods. “And he broke down the houses of the male cult prostitutes who were in the house of the Lord, where the women wove hangings for the Asherah” (2 Kings 22:7 ESV). So, Josiah took the law of the Lord seriously and attempted to set things right in Judah. He even restored the celebration of Passover, which had been abandoned by the people. But his reforms ended up being far from successful, because he could not change the hearts of the people. They remained unfaithful to God and it was not long before the idols entered their way back into the land. And after Josiah was killed in battle against the Egyptians, things took a dramatic turn for the worse. Upon his death, Josiah was replaced as king by his son, Jehoahaz. And Jehoahaz would prove to be nothing like his father. His reign would last only three months, before Pharaoh Neco took him captive and replaced him with his brother, Eliakim, whose name he changed to Jehoiakim. He ended up being nothing more than a vassal to the Pharaoh, paying him tribute in order to keep the Egyptians from destroying Jerusalem. And the Scriptures tell us, “And he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, according to all that his fathers had done” (2 Kings 23:37 ESV).

It was to these sons of Josiah that Jeremiah addresses his message from God. The section we are looking at today addresses Jehoakim, the son of Josiah who replaced his brother Jehoahaz (Shallum), who had been taken captive by Pharaoh. These verses are a continuation of verses 11-12. God warned:

“…in the place where they have carried him captive, there shall he die, and he shall never see this land again.” – Jeremiah 22:12 ESV

Which is exactly what had happened to Jehoahaz. But Jehoakim would learn little from his brother’s experience. And God had some very harsh words to say to him. He accused Jehoakim of building his personal palace with forced labor, refusing to pay those who did the work, even though they were fellow Jews. This was injustice at its worse. It was ungodly because it was against the revealed will of God. Jehoakim was out to build himself a huge palace filled with expensive cedar and precious metals. But God warns him: “a beautiful cedar palace does not make a great king!” (Jeremiah 23:15 NLT). Jehoakim may have looked and lived like a king, but he was far from one in God’s eyes. Unlike his father, Jehoakim did not practice righteousness and justice. And as a result, Jeohaokim did not enjoy the blessing of God as his father had. God reminds Jehoakim that his father had taken care of the poor and needy, and his efforts had resulted in God blessing him. And God rhetorically asks Jehoakim, “Isn’t that what it means to know me?” (Jeremiah 23:16 NLT). In other words, Josiah’s just and righteous behavior revealed how well he knew God. His actions gave evidence of his relationship with God. He did what God wanted and was rewarded for his actions. All went well for him. But that was not the case of Jehoakim. His reign was all about him. He built himself a fine temple, using the labor of his own people to make himself comfortable and rich. He taxed the people in order to pay his tributes to Pharaoh. He was a cruel, unjust and unfaithful king. And God describes in less-than-flattering terms:

“But you! You have eyes only for greed and dishonesty!
    You murder the innocent,
    oppress the poor, and reign ruthlessly.” – Jeremiah 23:17 NLT

This kind of behavior was intolerable to God, especially when practiced by the one who was to be king over the people of God. When God had originally chosen David to be the one to replace Saul as king over Israel, He had made it clear that David was to be like a shepherd.

He chose his servant David, calling him from the sheep pens. He took David from tending the ewes and lambs and made him the shepherd of Jacob’s descendants—God’s own people, Israel. He cared for them with a true heart and led them with skillful hands. – Psalm 78:70-72 NLT

That is what God expected from all His kings. They were to care for the people of God and shepherd them tenderly and justly. They were not to “fleece the sheep” or take advantage of them. They were to guide and protect them. And the kings of Israel were never to forget that they held their roles as a result of the sovereign will of God. They answered to Him. And He would hold them accountable for their efforts on behalf of the flock of Israel. The prophet Ezekiel records some very sobering words from God concerning the shepherds of Israel.

The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: ‘This is what the sovereign Lord says: Woe to the shepherds of Israel who have been feeding themselves! Should not shepherds feed the flock? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the choice animals, but you do not feed the sheep! You have not strengthened the weak, healed the sick, bandaged the injured, brought back the strays, or sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled over them. They were scattered because they had no shepherd, and they became food for every wild beast. My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over the entire face of the earth with no one looking or searching for them. – Ezekiel 34:1-6 NLT

This was an indictment of all the leaders of Israel, including the kings and priests. But it is particularly pertinent to the message Jeremiah is delivering to Jehoakim. He was supposed to have been a shepherd to the people of Judah. But he was guilty of each and every one of the things mentioned by Ezekiel. And God makes it clear what He is going to do:

This is what the sovereign Lord says: Look, I am against the shepherds, and I will demand my sheep from their hand. I will no longer let them be shepherds; the shepherds will not feed themselves anymore. I will rescue my sheep from their mouth, so that they will no longer be food for them. – Ezekiel 34:10 NLT

Jehoakim may have looked like a king and lived in a palace fit for a king, but he was far from being the kind of king God required. And so, his days would be numbered. He would not have a long and prosperous reign. He would answer to God for his failure to shepherd the flock of God well.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson